Campaign Ads Look To Reach Hispanic Voters

When presidential candidates try to reach reaching Latino voters, there's no silver bullet.

"What do you do?" asks Sergio Bendixen, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist for the Latino vote during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. "It's not like you're going to be able to use what they call 'dog-whistle advertising,' where the signals that you send to Hispanics are only going to be recognized by Hispanics and nobody else."

The challenge is worth it. The Hispanic electorate is huge, growing and diverse, and some analysts say it could influence the results in some key swing states.

So, you have to break the Latino electorate into groups. According to the best figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, about 40 percent of Latino voters switch back and forth between media in Spanish and in English.

Dissecting The Spanish-Language Media

In Spanish media, there is perhaps no bigger star than Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. Miami-based Univision is the country's largest Spanish-language television network.

"We've heard John McCain and Barack Obama say 'Viva Mexico' or 'Viva Cuba, Viva Puerto Rico,'" Ramos says. "That is not enough. They have to address the issues that affect Latinos."

In the past year, Ramos has participated as a questioner in three presidential debates, and he has received the ultimate media recognition: He's been satirized on Saturday Night Live. Univision gets big ratings. Its local affiliates currently have the top-rated evening newscast in Los Angeles, and the second-highest rated news show in New York, making Ramos one of the most influential journalists in America.

"When Bob Dole ran for president, he decided not to give us an interview, at all. And he lost the election," Ramos tells NPR. "Nowadays, it is impossible — and I am not exaggerating — for either Barack Obama or John McCain to reach the White House without going through Univision, or without going through Spanish-language media."

And obviously, presidential hopefuls Obama and McCain agree. Both have cut ads in Spanish, but those ads won't capture the whole Latino electorate –- or even most of it.

The Breadth Of The Hispanic Vote

Spanish-language political campaigns can miss voters like Tony Rosario, a New York City building superintendent who came to the mainland from Puerto Rico more than four decades ago.

He says he reads The New York Times and the New York Daily News a lot, but he also turns to cable television. "Bill O'Reilly's one of my favorites. You know, he tells it like it is," Rosario says. "And also Geraldo Rivera. You know, I just, I listen to them, and I look at their programs."

This makes Rosario among the majority of American Latinos who get nearly all their news in English. Like Tomas Custer, who reads news online from CNN and The San Francisco Chronicle — wherever he can find it.

"I do speak Spanish and understand Spanish, but I'm much better in English — let's just say that," Custer says. He identifies himself as Hispanic. Custer says his mom's side of the family came from Mexico, while his dad comes from mixed Scandinavian, French, German and American-Indian descent.

"Don't stereotype us as only being Spanish speakers. Don't stereotype us as only consuming tacos or whatever," Custer says. "We are a diverse group. If you want my vote, target me in my language that I'm comfortable with."

Custer is a 39-year-old Web site designer based in Columbia, Mo., who runs the blog Hispanictips.com, for which he pulls together coverage from news sites all over the country and the world, mostly in English. But he's no celebrity newsman like Jorge Ramos.

"I am squeaking by," Custer says, by selling online ads through Google and another service. Custer's site gets maybe 80,000 to 120,000 unique readers a month.

But there is no dominant news outlet targeting English-speaking Latinos, and no dominant Web site. That helps explain why candidates lavish so much attention on Spanish-language TV and radio stations and Spanish-language papers, says University of Southern California journalism professor Roberto Suro, the founding director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

"The focus is on Spanish-language media because it's easily identifiable. And, it has become sort of a measure of how much effort a candidate is putting into Hispanic voters," says Suro, a former reporter for The New York Times,The Washington Post and Time magazine. "It's not necessarily a meaningful measure of how well they'll do, or what the totality of their effort is."

When he was working for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, strategist Sergio Bendixen was credited with helping her win much of the Latino vote. In parts of the Texas border with Mexico, he helped craft a plan to run radio ads -– in English –- on Spanish-language music stations. Market research showed that's where a lot of Mexican-Americans turn for the music they like best, and Clinton ran very well there.

But those tactics are tough to replicate, he says. "The English-dominant Hispanic is very, very difficult to isolate," Bendixen says. "I think campaigns need to accept the fact that the only way to reach them is the same way that you reach all other voters: through the general media."

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